If you are looking for a base while exploring First World War historical sites in France and Belgium, Lille is a fantastic option.
Whether you hire a car, take the Eurostar train or go on one of the many bus tours, Lille puts you within a short distance to many historical sites including the Battlefields of Flanders and the Ypres salient, the Menin Gate memorial, Tyne Cot cemetery and Hill 60.
Lille has a fascinating history of its own. Since the Middle Ages, it has been an important industrial and economic centre, its wealth coveted by its neighbours. That’s why, at different times, Lille has been part of Flanders, Burgundy, the Spanish Netherlands, France, the Netherlands again and now France.
Lille has shed some of its industrial past and emerged as a hub for new technology, education and tourism.
There are also many historical sites within the city of Lille. Occupied by the Germans during the First World War, Lille was just a few kilometres from the fighting, meaning troops regularly passed through the city on their way to and from the front.
Lille’s occupation by the Germans began on 13 October 1914 after a ten day siege and heavy shelling which destroyed 882 apartment and office blocks and 1,500 houses mostly around the train station and in the town centre. By the end of October the town was being run by German authorities and quickly became a place for German soldiers to relax and take a break from the fighting.
The Germans soon established hospitals, coffee houses, bars, restaurants, casinos and a cinema. The Lille theatre (now the Opera) was used by the Germans for many events and hosted special guests such as the Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria, artists from Berlin and Lille’s Governor General Heinrich.
The citadel was used as a prison for the hostages who had been taken by the Germans and to secure the obedience of Lille’s inhabitants.
Today, many monuments serve as poignant reminders of the past. Lille’s 1929 monument to its citizens executed during the First World War – at the junction of Boulevards de la Liberte and Vauban – shows five members of a resistance group shot by the Germans in 1915 for sending information helpful to British forces.
When Lille fell again to the Germans in 1940 the Nazis promptly blew up this memorial, and it had to be painstakingly reconstructed once peace had been secured.
At the entrance to Lille Zoo is an elaborate memorial “to the 20,000 pigeons who died for their country’’ and “the pigeon fanciers who were executed by the enemy’’ for having kept them.
There’s plenty of First World War history to absorb in and around Lille – but there’s also room to take some time away from the story of war.
Highlights in Lille include the beautiful old town, renowned museums and art galleries, stylish shopping, excellent dining options and several indoor and outdoor markets including the famous Lille flea market (La Braderie de Lille) held in September along more than 100km of streets.